What is it to be human? We are not complicated machines. That thought never occurred to Plato or Aristotle who had not witnessed the quasi-autonomy of the machines of the industrial age. But quasi-autonomy is not autonomy. Machines need governors, and I do mean human ones, not just mechanical regulating contrivances, to direct them. There is the nightmare of the machine controlling the person, as for instance in tha case of the child soldier with an automatic weapon.
Why is the individual separate from the external world in space though embedded in it? Consider: if self-conscious beings were seamlessly wedded to the material world, it would be impossible to assign any role whatsoever to consciousness. It would be as if we were spectators of our bodies’ behaviours. (A thought experiment – imagine yourself behind the wheel of a car that goes into a skid. What happens at the moment you realise the car is controlling you, not you the car?). But the price of our separateness is loneliness and alienation, with a yearning for and intuition of the possibility of greater connectedness.
Why does individual experience have the property of being continuous with itself in time? If this were not the case, the self would be created anew in every moment and there would be no historical self in which experience was anchored. (Consider an alcoholic who says he will never drink again. The first day, first week may be easy. The risk of relapse continues much longer, some alcoholics tell themselves ‘for ever’). For better or worse our historical self is the person we become through the life we lead.
Rilke describes exceptions to the limitations imposed on our experiences by space and time, and these are the experiences which elevate us above other sentient beings. There is the feeling of being connected to the outer world and in particular other human beings. And there is the realisation that we can transcend our former selves through growth and creative effort. In a poem from an earlier period than I have been discussing, Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rilke concludes ‘You must change your life’.